National Geographic News
A beekeeper pulls a honeycomb from a hive.

A beekeeper pulls a section of honeycomb from a hive.

Photograph by Gianluca Colla, National Geographic

Jennifer S. Holland

for National Geographic News

Published May 10, 2013

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

Bees are back in the news this spring, if not back in fields pollinating this summer's crops. The European Union (EU) has announced that it will ban, for two years, the use of neonicotinoids, the much-maligned pesticide group often fingered in honeybee declines. The U.S. hasn't followed suit, though this year a group of beekeepers and environmental and consumer groups sued the EPA for not doing enough to protect bees from the pesticide onslaught.

For the last several years scientists have fretted over the future of bees, and although research has shed much light on the crisis, those in the bee business—from hive keepers to commercial farmers—say the insects remain in deep trouble as their colonies continue to struggle.

The current crisis arose during the fall of 2006 as beekeepers around the country reported massive losses—more than a third of hives on average and up to 90 percent in some cases. Bees were flying away and simply not coming back; keepers would find boxes empty of adult bees except for a live queen. No bee corpses remained to tell the tale. The losses were unprecedented and fast.

Now it's five years later, and though colony collapse disorder (CCD)—the name given to the mysterious killer condition—has dwindled in the manner of cyclical diseases, bees are still battling for their lives and their colonies are weaker than ever. The latest data, from the 2012-2013 winter, indicate an average loss of 45.1 percent of hives across all U.S. beekeepers, up 78.2 percent from the previous winter, and a total loss of 31.1 percent of commercial hives, on par with the last six years. (Most keepers now consider a 15 percent loss "acceptable.")

Unprecedented Pollinator Crisis

Why keep worrying over the fate of a bunch of pesky stinging insects? Bees in their crucial role as pollinators are paramount. Western nations rely heavily on managed honeybees—the "moveable force" of bees that ride in trucks from farm to farm—to keep commercial agriculture productive. About a third of our foods (some 100 key crops) rely on these insects, including apples, nuts, all the favorite summer fruits (like blueberries and strawberries), alfalfa (which cows eat), and guar bean (used in all kinds of products). In total, bees contribute more than $15 billion to U.S. crop production, hardly small potatoes.

No, we wouldn't starve without their services—much of the world lives without managed pollinators. But we'd lose an awful lot of good, healthy food, from cherries and broccoli to onions and almonds. Or we'd pay exorbitant costs for farmers to use some other, less efficient pollination technique to supplement the work that healthy natural pollinators could do. Plus, bee health can tell us a lot about environmental health, and thus about our own well-being.

 

Collecting honey from a honeycomb of the giant honeybee using smoke.
A man uses smoke to harvest honey from a honeycomb.

Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

 

Today's pollinator crisis, which has also hit Europe and now parts of Asia, is unprecedented. But honeybees have done disappearing acts on and off for more than a century, possibly since humans began domesticating them 4,500 years ago in Egypt. In the United States, unexplained colony declines in the 1880s, the 1920s, and the 1960s baffled farmers, and in 1995-1996 Pennsylvania keepers lost more than half of their colonies without a clear cause. The 1980s and 1990s saw various new parasites that hit bees hard; Varroa and tracheal mites became major killers, and they continue to plague hives and keep beekeepers up at night.

When CCD appeared, the USDA's Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture joined forces to study and fight the assailant, but a half-dozen years later they still lack a smoking gun. Recent work reveals higher loads of pathogens in the guts of bees from collapsed colonies versus healthy ones—making viral infections a likely culprit.

But this isn't a case of one cause, one effect. Bee expert Dennis vanEngelsdorp of the University of Maryland likens the situation to HIV/AIDS in humans. "You don't die of AIDS; you die of pneumonia or some other condition that hits when your immunity is down," he says. Today's bee mortalities may be behaving slightly differently. "But we're pretty sure in all these cases, diseases are the tipping point" after bees' immune systems are compromised.

So what makes bees vulnerable to those diseases, what's killing their immunity, continues to be the $15-billion question.

Problems Piling Up

Zac Browning is a fourth-generation beekeeper based in North Dakota. His mostly migratory commercial operation runs about 22,000 hives in three states—meaning he trucks his bees to different locations at different times of year, renting out their pollination services to big farms like those producing almonds in California and canola in Idaho.

CCD devastated his hives a few years back, but "we've seen losses more recently from everything imaginable," he says. "Pests, parasites, pesticide exposure, starvation, queen failures, you name it."

In addition to these problems piling up, "our inputs have gone up one-and-a-half times in the last decade," he says. "We now have to try to sustain bees [with extra food] when natural food is scarce, dearth periods that didn't exist before."

Part of the problem is keepers have to boost hive numbers to meet demand, "but the carrying capacity of the environment hasn't changed." In fact, it's gone down. The amount of undeveloped land with good bee forage just isn't enough to sustain the masses, he says.

Meanwhile, studies have shown that colonies with access to the best pollens (with more than 25 percent protein plus essential amino acids), which occur in diverse plant habitats once common across the landscape, are more robust and more resistant to disease than those in pollen-poor environments.

The Threat From Pesticides

Another adversary in the bees' battle, as the EU reminds us, is pesticides. Pesticides themselves aren't necessarily a death sentence for bees—and debate rages over whether, when properly applied, these chemicals can be used safely among pollinators. But exposure to them seems to open the door to other killers.

For example, bees exposed to sublethal doses of neonicotinoids—the type the EU is banning and that are used routinely in the U.S. on wheat, corn, soy, and cotton crops—become more easily infected by the gut parasite Nosema.

Meanwhile, last year a French study indicated that this same class of chemicals can fog honeybee brains and alter behavior. And a British study on bumblebees, a natural pollinator in decline in many places, reported neonicotinoids keep bees from supplying their hives with enough food for queen production.

 

A queen bee.
A man shows his hive's queen bee.

Photograph by Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

 

"Honeybees are complex," says Browning. "If you reduce their lives by even just a few days, the colony itself never thrives, never reaches its maximum potential. Sublethal effects that don't kill adults outright may still render hives weak and lethargic. And those hives might not survive the winter."

What takes down the individual bee doesn't necessarily wipe out the colony, vanEngelsdorp explains. And pesticides, like other factors, do their worst when combined with other chemicals or stressors, not necessarily all by themselves. "It's synergism," he says. "One plus one may equal 10 with the right two products or insults together." (Samples of bee-collected pollen typically contain residue from numerous pesticides.) In the end, then, an immune-suppressed colony faces a downward spiral, unable to cope with stressors that weren't a problem during healthier years.

The chemicals of modern agriculture have long been vilified, and they certainly represent a vital and active line of inquiry: The number registered for use in the U.S. exceeds 1,200 active ingredients distributed among some 18,000 products, and state pesticide use records are mostly unavailable, leaving a lot of question marks. No one knows much about how low-level exposure to various chemicals over time or how various combinations affect the insects. Meanwhile, migratory colonies likely have very different chemical exposure than those who stay put. The landscape is messy.

A New Concern

In newly worrisome findings, a study from a team at Penn State has revealed that "inert" ingredients (adjuvants) used regularly to boost the effectiveness of pesticides do as much or more harm than the active "toxic" ingredients. In one study adjuvants were shown to impair adult bees' smelling and navigation abilities, and in a separate study they killed bee larvae outright.

The formulas for these other ingredients "are often proprietary information and not disclosed by the companies," says Penn State's Maryann Frazier, who wasn't an author on the study, "so they cannot be independently tested and assessed for toxicity. When [the] EPA screens pesticides for registration, they only consider the active ingredient," she says.

In addition, "there are no requirements by [the] EPA for companies to test the impacts of pesticides on immature stages of pollinators," she says, "only adults."

The EPA participated in a stakeholder conference last year to discuss honeybee health (a report is just out from that event). An EPA spokesperson declined to comment on the pending lawsuit but noted that the agency has been working to speed up its review of research related to neonicotinoids and their effect on honeybees. It is also tweaking existing regulatory practices to address various concerns including pesticide dust drift, product label warnings, and enforcement of bee-kill investigations.

Barrage of Stressors

So in addition to a changing climate and bizarre local weather systems, bees are threatened by chemical exposure in untested and unregulated combinations, disappearing foraging habitat with increasing monoculture that requires trucking bees from place to place, and fungal and viral intruders, plus the dreaded Varroa mite.

Meanwhile, nature is not sitting still. The diseases that are taking out immune-suppressed bees are quick to evolve resistance to farmers' attempts to protect their bees. "Based on our management surveys last year, not one commercial product against Varroa worked consistently," says vanEngelsdorp, citing numerous examples.

With the barrage of stressors bees face, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that they're no longer as resilient as they once were. And honeybees, vanEngelsdorp points out, are among the most robust pollinators. The native insects, such as bumblebees, stingless bees, and flies, may be in worse shape, though their plights—and role in the ecosystem—are far less well known.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit against the EPA is just revving up (the first hearing was March 15), and scientists continue to push hard to get more information on the unregulated ingredients in agrochemicals that are proving harmful. "Unless we can get at what's actually being used on fields, we can't analyze their effects," says toxicologist Chris Mullin, a co-author of the Penn State adjuvant study. And some products, he says, "are nearly 100 percent adjuvant. Illogically, they are considered safe until proven otherwise."

Other voices have risen strongly against current land use practices. "Honeybees need habitat," Browning says. "That's any floral source with good nutrition. And that's not wheat, corn, or soy, crops that take up well over 60 percent of U.S. farmland." We've traded bee needs for biofuel, he laments, and we're paying the price.

"We also need good cooperation from [the] EPA—and from farmers and pesticide applicators—to implement and enforce best management practices," he says. Also on his wish list: a better battery of tools to effectively combat the Varroa mite, the bane of all beekeepers.

"Bee culture has adapted to fit monoculture, and that's not healthy," says Browning. "If we can instead invest in good sustainable practices in agriculture, we can still thrive."

But his confidence in the future, along with that of many of his fellow beekeepers, is declining with his hives. "We're just about tapped out," he says. "Without some real action we'll see this industry dwindle away." And as the industry goes, so go the little yellow insects that put so much good food on our plates.

Jennifer S. Holland, a contributing writer to National Geographic, wrote about pollinators in the March 2011 issue of National Geographic.

24 comments
Sandy Rowley
Sandy Rowley

Please buy only organic plants & flowers. Most garden shops treat their plants with bee killing NEONICS. These neonics can last up to 4 years on a plant.

Donald Sutherland
Donald Sutherland

The USDA Agricultural Research Service says pesticides may be having an unexpected impact, “but no common environmental agent or chemicals stand out as a causative”.

And the EPA states, “to date we’re aware of no data demonstrating that an EPA registered pesticide used according to the label instructions has caused CCD.”

http://www.epa.gov/opp00001/about/intheworks/honeybee.htm

But that isn’t true.

In January 2012 Purdue University scientists published results of their two year study showing the insecticides clothianidin and thiamethoxam, commonly used to coat corn and soybeans seeds, were killing pollinating bees.

http://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/research/2012/120111KrupkeBees.html

“We know that these insecticides are highly toxic to bees: we found them in each sample of dead and dying bees,” quoted Christian Krupke, associate professor of entomology and co-author of the findings in the Purdue University News Service.

http://www.panna.org/sites/default/files/Krupke_journal.pone_.0029268.pdf

The Purdue Study sited the neonicotinoids as compounds that can persist for months or years with plants growing in the treated soil taking up the compounds in leaf tissue and or pollen.

In March 2012 in the journal of Science two teams of researchers, one in France and the other in Britain, published studies showing neonicotinoids have significant negative impacts on bee health and colony survival.

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6079/348.abstract

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6079/351.abstract

And in April 2012 the Harvard School of Public Health released their study to be published in the June issue of the Bulletin of Insectology, citing new research providing evidence linking imidaloprid and bee CCD.

http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/2012-releases/colony-collapse-disorder-pesticide.html

The authors of this study proved bees exposed to imidaloprid in a plant’s pollen or through the high fructose corn syrup beekeepers use to feed their bees, and it resulted in CCD. Over 90 percent of conventionally grown corn in the US has been treated with neonicotinoids and it is in corn syrup.

The governments of France, Germany, and Italy are not waiting for more studies tying bee CCD with neonicotinoids. Since 2008 there have been bans on seed treatment using neonicotinoids in all of these countries.

http://www.epa.gov/opp00001/about/intheworks/ccd-european-ban.html

Bee keepers and their associations recognize the agricultural pesticide threat but say a bigger danger contributing to bee CCD is with lawn and garden products being used by consumers.

“A more immediate threat is the lawn care companies that mix neonicotinoids into sprays and they are more widely distributed then talc on corn seed and other modes of distribution,” says Dan Conlon, President of the Massachusetts Beekeepers’s Association.

In a recent report on bee colony collapse by the environmental organization Xerces, a nonprofit that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat, their scientists found products approved for homeowners to use in gardens, lawns, and on ornamental trees have manufacturer-recommended application rates up to 120 times higher than rates approved for agricultural crops.

http://www.xerces.org/neonicotinoids-and-bees/

Scott McKay
Scott McKay

It scary really, if bees make honey with pestide in it then feed it to their larva's the bees end up with neuro problems. Yet when women are pregnant and trying to eat heathy, what do they eat fruits and veggies, packed full of what? Oh pesticides, that's right. And why are so many kids being born with so many neuro issues now days. Mmmmmmmm

So the way I see it is if people don't want to save the honey bee maybe we should start showing people the effects of pesticides on our children.

Eric Handley
Eric Handley

Never knew bees were this important to our way of life. Before we go killing them when they fly too close, let's think of their importance. Bees are not aggressive.

James Heymans Randall
James Heymans Randall

why are we under the impression that only the human domesticated bee is the one capable of naturally pollinating everything, I mean there are usually very specific pollinators for each plant/flower

O Beehive
O Beehive

As a beekeeper and advocate for native pollinators, I'd like to correct one erroneous fact mentioned in the article.  Bees are not the preferred pollinator for alfalfa. The native alkali bee is actually a more efficient and appropriate pollinator and is generally accepted as such throughout farming regions in the west. Honeybees themselves will choose other sources for pollen and nectar when available and generally eschew alfalfa.

 Additionally, its important to remember that the Eurasian honeybee is NOT native to north America.  Indeed, our native pollinators may be the last line of defense in pollinating our agricultural crops.  This is a return to the reliance on native pollinators that was standard 150 years ago before beekeeping for pollination was the norm.  Increasing native pollinators population by recreating and protecting habitat for them may be both the most cost-effective and reliable solution to the problem of lost pollinators.  This is not to say that we should dismiss the honeybee.  Indeed both require much of the same thing and a decrease on reliance of pesticides will benefit both. 

Amanda Williams
Amanda Williams

When you look at the claims Bayer make about their products, the danger to bees is hardly surprising:

http://www.buzzaboutbees.net/how-do-neonicotinoids-work.html

It should be noted, that if manufacturers admit unacceptable risk to bees, their products would not be allowed on the market under law.But check out the patents for these products and ask yourself 'how can these chemicals not endanger millions of non-target invertbrate species, including bees, butterflies, ladybirds etc?See:

http://www.buzzaboutbees.net/neonicotinoid-pesticides-and-non-target-insects.html

Finally, the EU have not managed to impose a full ban.There is a restriction to just 3 neonics for 2 years - including the restriction that they may not be used on flowering crops, but can still be used in ther areas of agriculture.This is not much of a reprieve for bees because neonics stay in the soil for years, and are picked up by successive plantings - so plant untreated oil seed rape in a field where neonics were used before, and what will you get, if not a toxic plant for bees & other pollinators?

Amanda Williams
Amanda Williams

When you look at the claims Bayer make about their products, the danger to bees is hardly surprising:

http://www.buzzaboutbees.net/how-do-neonicotinoids-work.html

It should be noted, that if manufacturers admit unacceptable risk to bees, their products would not be allowed on the market under law.But check out the patents for these products and ask yourself 'how can these chemicals not endanger millions of non-target invertbrate species, including bees, butterflies, ladybirds etc?See:

http://www.buzzaboutbees.net/neonicotinoid-pesticides-and-non-target-insects.html

Finally, the EU have not managed to impose a full ban.There is a restriction to just 3 neonics for 2 years - including the restriction that they may not be used on flowering crops, but can still be used in ther areas of agriculture.This is not much of a reprieve for bees because neonics stay in the soil for years, and are picked up by successive plantings - so plant untreated oil seed rape in a field where neonics were used before, and what will you get, if not a toxic plant for bees & other pollinators?

barton creek
barton creek

The US is not being responsible about this. I wonder too about whether the populations of other pollinators may also be in decline. There is also concern about many beekeepers' habit of feeding high fructose corn syrup to their bees.

pa ja
pa ja

The destruction of our environment, ecosystems and poisoning of our food, soils and waterways must be addressed by the powerful pesticide/chemical cartel that lives in a state of pr spin and denial

BATTLE FOR THE BEES: Dying Bees Raise Alarm For Humans - Europe Bans Pesticide http://sco.lt/8QOFgv

pa ja
pa ja

 How Much More "Evidence" Do We Need?  Pesticides ARE Poisons and Neonicotinoids are evenly more deadly and not just to bees.  Does anyone really expect the powerful global chemical/pesticide industry to admit this without a huge fight.  It is a trillion dollar business.

"Neonicotinoids Deadly to Song Birds: Conservation Group Seeks Assurance that Wild Bird Seed Products Are Pesticide-Free" http://ow.ly/kWv5z

William Alexander
William Alexander

I was a 'crop duster' in the MS delta for many years and wrote this poem in the early 70's. Included in my book, "The Infinite Jello", 1993.

"Crop Duster"

(What do I do?)

If you think bugs and bees

Are beautiful

And weeds and wildflowers

Are wonderful,

Then, I fly

The Enola Gay

Everyday.    wma

(The Enola Gay was the  bomber that dropped the bomb on Japan during WW11.)

Joanne Ransing
Joanne Ransing

Something they forgot to mention. ---  European scientists have linked bee epidemics to neonicotinoids, which are incorporated into plants grown from genetically altered seeds produced by Monsanto. The neonicotinoids are suspected to be the culprit in the mass die-off of bees in both Germany and Spain. In response to this research, the European Union has banned the seeds in question. Here in the United States, the leading bee research company was bought by Monsanto in 2012 after the company was first implicated in epidemic bee colony collapses, and little has been heard on the subject since.

National Geographic should be ashamed of them selves for participating in the conspiracy of silence.

Joanne Ransing
Joanne Ransing

Why no mention of the fact that the genetically modified plants produced by Monsanto are the biggest problem? The special "Roundup Ready" pesticides used on these artificial plants are killing the bees and it isn't even discussed here.  Is this article another example of the power of Monsanto? What else will die as a result of the Frankenfoods Monsanto and the government have colluded to create.

Miguel Carmona
Miguel Carmona

Those robot flies are a long way from reality. They were tested with little wires connected to a desktop power source because to date, nobody has developed a tiny portable power source as efficient as the one inside a bee. I believe bees are still very necessary and will be for quite some time.

Linda Venegas
Linda Venegas

You may have seen the story in the news recently about the robot "fly" that has been created...  This is sponsored by Monsanto as the new honey bee because the GENETICALLY MODOFIED seeds they create kill the bees when they try to pollenate the plants.    They are already pollinating by hand in China for this reason.

Mark Walker
Mark Walker

@James Heymans Randall That is very true, however, the honeybee is the poster child for this cause.  In actual fact, all pollinators have been grievously affected, in particular the hundreds of Bumble Bee species many of which are now essentially extinct.  Another prolific pollinator in the news recently which has dramatically collapsed in population is the Monarch Butterfly, of which endangered species protection is now being sought.  This was unfathomable a few short years ago.  Pesticides are indiscriminate... They kill anything relying on the plant for food!



sarah pearson
sarah pearson

@Amanda Williams

Thank goodness someone has pointed out this rather extraordinarily, glaringly obvious glitch in the so-called ban.  Not only is there the problem of the contaminated soil but where is the uncontaminated seed going to come from?

No-one has been able to tell me this, in spite of several letters to Owen Patterson & cronies asking that very question!

It's a token gesture at best & while I acknowledge that it could be the first scribbles toward the bigger picture, there are some very serious flaws in the methodology.

My cynicism leans towards some manoeuvers from the agrochemical companies who, at the end of the 2 years can say there has been no discernible difference in bee-health therefore their products are safe.

They are presently suing the EU trying to reverse the decision!!!!!


Richard Kane
Richard Kane

@Joanne Ransing

 It actually goes back to 2000 or 2001 when Mexico discovered that genetic spread insecticide cross- bread by the wind with sacred Mexican corn. Bees like corn syrup from discarded soda cans, and the hive panics from the sick bee, thinking bee pandemic and free the hive 

 The two-late syndrome actually stops panic preventing tainted Northern hemisphere air from pollinating the southern hemisphere. 

With a possible out of control black hole from the Hadron Collider, its unlikely or else slightly less unlikely we already done so but may have hundreds of years to flee the planet first,  readersupportednews.org/pm-section/398-science/5074-doomsday-gambles-or-false-rumors 

We can actually savage something by regularly bringing Southern Hemisphere bees to our national parks,

AND BY BANNING CORN SYRUP

 http://www.organicconsumers.org/Corn/spreadofGECorn.cfm

http://readersupportednews.org/pm-section/27-27/11025-bee-colony-collapse-hiding-from-danger







Aaron G.
Aaron G.

@Joanne Ransing   They do mention this at the beginning of the story and provide a link to the appropriate article on neonicotinoid pesticides.

James O'Kelly
James O'Kelly

@Joanne Ransing While I share your concern, it potentially has something to do with the fact that we have been able to do very little testing of GMO products in the USA. It is a crime to even possess GMO seed you do not own a license to, and the contract you sign to get a license prohibits any testing of the product.

When the democrats and republicans stop blowing monsanto, we might make progress.

I wouldn't spray round up on a congressman, nor would I feed his children with roundup ready garbage.

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